Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2018

Istanbul Istanbul, a novel (2016), by Burhan Sönmez, translated by Ümit Hussein

It took a bit of fortitude to read this remarkable novel by Turkish author Burhan Sönmez: Istanbul Istanbul is too close to the real world of torture to be anything but difficult to read.

Like The Decameron to which it alludes in the text, it is based on storytelling over 10 days, and the stories mesh fantasy with reality.  Four prisoners sharing a cell wait their turn for repeated interrogation sessions, returning afterwards each time with terrible injuries but with their spirits uncrushed.  To pass the time, in a place where time seems not to exist, they tell each other stories, about the city above them, and – masked in parables and riddles and bawdy anecdotes so that no secrets can be revealed under torture – they also tell tales about their lives, their loves, their hopes and their dreams.

I read the first two chapters: 1st Day, ‘The Iron Gate’ told by the Student Demirtay, and 2nd Day, ‘The White Dog’ told by the Doctor, and then I had to take a break.  I belong to PEN and I write letters to the authorities in repressive countries all the time.  So I am only too well aware that in real life, in far too many countries around the world, there are real people suffering the cold, the hunger, the lack of medical care, the refusal to allow contact with family, friends or even lawyers and the ongoing barbarity of excruciating torture.  I have read too many case studies to count, but I have never before read a novel that brought the reality of torture so vividly to life.

Two days later I came back to the book, and read just two more chapters: 3rd Day, ‘The Wall’ told by Kamo the Barber, and 3th Day, ‘The Hungry Wolf’ told by Uncle Küheylan.  I stopped then, and read something else, Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulic.  That is also about a great human determination not to be defeated by pain, but Frida Kahlo’s pain was inflected by disease and an accident, not by people brutalised by a repressive regime.  More about that later.

So tonight, with more than a little reluctance, I picked up Istanbul Istanbul again, and read it right through to the end of the 10 days.  I had to find out what happened to these men.

So yes, a grim experience.  But as Stu says in his review at Winston’s Dad, this is the value of a prize like the EBRD Literature Prize for which this novel is shortlisted.  The Turkey I knew of is Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey.  The Turkey I know about now is a different place.  While this novel is a work of imagination – and a work that celebrates the power of imagination to transcend horror – it was written by an author who was so seriously injured following an assault by Turkish police that he had to receive treatment in Britain and remain in exile for several years.

PS Since 2016, I have, under the auspices of PEN, had occasion to write to the Turkish authorities regarding two of at least 151 writers and journalists arrested and detained without charge or awaiting trial in Turkey.  According to the information I was given Sajjad Jahan Fard, Hassan Baladeh and Hasip Yanlıç, were targeted for writing about Kurds.  Ash Erdogan came to the attention of PEN when during the crackdown on peaceful dissent she was held in disgraceful conditions, and denied essential medication as well as requests for water.  Erdogan suffers from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes but was denied access to medical help.

Author: Burhan Sönmez
Title: Istanbul Istanbul
Translated by Ümit Hussein
Publisher: Telegram Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781846592058
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $19.46

Available from Fishpond: Istanbul, Istanbul


  1. Sounds like a tough read, not sure I want to go there, it wasn’t that long ago I visited Istanbul and read Pamuk’s novel of the same name, though I would say I encountered a different Istanbul than his, he’s so melancholy and chooses to embrace it – he even spends much of the book speaking about this word. I prefer the Istanbul of contrasts, of double sides as it straddles two continents, many peoples, a unique history and some difficult memories. Not sure I want to taint the memory with imaginings of this kind, I have listened to stories of torture from young political prisoners I’ve met and those horrors are enough for me to not wish to go there. Incredible what viciousness humans continue to be capable of.


    • Yes, I know what you mean. Turkey has been on my bucket list for a while, but its persecution of Pamuk and other controversies have made me a bit hesitant now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Grim reading indeed. I can see why it’s an important book.


    • None of us want to think about what goes on. But if none of us do, then …


      • I read an excellent book from Tahar Ben Jelloun. The same sort of theme.


        • This book also reminded me of those two men held hostages in the Middle East for many years. *blush* I can’t remember their names now, but the book one of them wrote told about the strategies they used to stay sane under the most awful of circumstances.


  3. I wonder how far Peter Dutton will go if he’s given the chance, against Australians I mean, we already know he returns refugees to torture.


    • It was a bad moment when George Bush endorsed torture in some circumstances…


  4. […] 12/4/18 The winner of the prize is Istanbul, Istanbul.  See my review here and the judges’ comments […]


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